When the Kansas City Royals selected outfielder Alfredo Escalera in the 2012 draft out of the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., the 17-year-old became the youngest player taken since MLB’s amateur draft began in 1965.
“I didn’t know it at the time,” said Escalera, a native of Puerto Rico. “After I was drafted an article came out about that and I was real surprised. I knew I was young for my class, but I didn’t know I was the youngest ever drafted. It’s cool to have that distinction.”
Escalera struggled last season. In his first full season with the Low Class A Lexington Legends — against older players — Escalera hit .221 batting average in 104 games, indicative of how green he was.
“We spent a lot of time in spring training talking to Alfredo about being more selective at the plate and looking for his pitch,” Legends manager Omar Ramirez said. “It’s not easy for any young player to do, despite how easy he’s making it look right now.”
Through 54 games in Lexington this year, the 20-year-old is showing what a quick learner he can be, as his .312 batting average ranks seventh in the league. Escalera enjoyed a breakout month of May, hitting .323 during the month with four home runs and 14 RBI.
“The experience of having played there last year really helps now,” he said. “Last year, I really didn’t know what to expect in my first full season. Now, I have the experience of last year, and I know more about the league. I also have the experience of the mistakes I made last year that I can work on and perfect this season.”
Escalera has improved so much, he is one of six Legends players who will represent the Southern Division roster for the South Atlantic League All-Star game on June 23 at McCormick Field in Asheville, N.C.
“Last year I led off all season,” Escalera said. “This year I hit second in the lineup more. I try to get on base for the other guys behind me. I like to hit doubles and I’m also working on stealing. Last year I had 11 stolen bases. This year, I already have 11.”
In addition to having improved his on-field baseball skills, Escalera was tabbed the Royals Mike Sweeney Award winner as the player who best represents the organization on and off the field.
Leaving his native island as a teenager to attend the prestigious and private IMG Academy known for developing top athletes in sports like golf, tennis and baseball, meant Escalera matured faster than most young boys his age. It also helped that his mother was born and raised in Brooklyn, speaking both English and Spanish.
“When I got to Florida, I just kind of perfected (my English),” he said. “I’d been going to the Pendleton campus since I was like 9 years old for a baseball camp each year before I attended full time for four years of high school. The academy helped me a lot because we practiced every day. Back home, we’d practice three times a week. Going to the sports academy helped me get so much more playing each day to get better faster than others my age. Instead of just practicing during the season, we pretty much played every day of the year.”
Escalera said a normal day at the prep school is a lot like a day in college.
“We took three to four classes a day in the morning,” he said. “After that we’d eat lunch and then go to the field from 1 to 5 while getting your workout in — whether it be strength, speed or conditioning. At other high schools, kids go to school pretty much all day and then practice a little bit afterwards.
“Going to a sports academy, the school’s pretty competitive (academically), but you really focus on your sport because everything is there for you from the baseball part to the nutrition part, working on your speed and muscle building. It’s all right there every day.”
In addition to the advantage of having attended a sports boarding school, baseball runs through the family bloodlines. His uncle Nino Escalera played for the Cincinnati Reds in 1954 and later scouted for the San Francisco Giants. His cousin Ruben Escalera played in the Milwaukee Brewers and Reds organizations, and later served as an instructor for the Oakland A’s.
“My grandfather also played a little baseball as well,” he said. “But basically my whole family loves the sport. Last year, Ruben was the manager of a winter ball team in Puerto Rico. When I saw Ruben last offseason, we talked a little baseball and he said he’d like to get me to play for his winter league team — the San Juan Senators. I can’t wait to see if I get that chance to play for him this offseason in Puerto Rico.”
One doesn’t have to look far to see where Escalera draws inspiration from. He chose the number 21 to wear as a nod to his baseball idol, Roberto Clemente.
“I decided to wear his number in the minor leagues,” Escalera said. “He’s a great role model to follow. He played hard, did things the right way and died trying to help others. That’s the kind of character I strive to have. Right now, wearing No. 21 inspires me to play my best. But when I get to the major leagues, I’ll wear my own number. Twenty-one was his number. When I get there, I’ll start my own thing and give Roberto Clemente the respect he deserves.”